Festive Food Fair: Pfeffernusse

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Anna from Morsels & Musings is the creator of a delightful series of blog posts called Recipe Carousels. The idea, as she puts it, is "to spread good recipes around and around and around..." She was very kind to feature two of my garden-inspired recipes on her Carousels this year: Tarragon & Chocolate Biscotti and Dill Bread. She recently asked if I would like to participate in her first-ever, full-fledged food blogging event, the Festive Food Fair.

Festive food? From bloggers around the world? How could I resist?

I knew in an instant which favorite holiday food I would want to feature... COOKIES. For me, it is just not Christmas without homemade cookies in all shapes and flavors, made with lots of love and laughter. When I was a kid, the cookie baking extravaganza commenced on the weekend immediately after Thanksgiving. Mom would lead us in baking double and even triple batches of our favorites: spritz cookies, thumbprints, cut-outs (two kinds), hazelnut cookies topped with meringue, honey cookies filled with jam, and Springerle (German cookies that we affectionately called "bricks," because they were as hard as rocks and best for dunking). We stowed our freshly baked treats in a giant tin "cookie box" -- a Christmas treasure chest filled with golden morsels that glistened with sugar, icing and dried fruits. Oh, to be a kid with vast heaps of cookies at hand!!

So the tradition continues. I am no longer a kid, but I am still a kid at heart when it comes to baking Christmas cookies. It is -- and always will be -- a way to relive, celebrate and uphold my family's traditions.

And what do Christmas cookies have to do with gardening? Well, nothing at all really. But I can say that having the garden has really taught me to think about (and appreciate) the way our foods (and the ingredients in our foods) are grown. It has made me curious about how things grow, what the plants look like, and where they come from.

And so it was when I made my first batch of Christmas cookies this weekend: Pfeffernusse, or "Pepper Nuts." The recipe called for very traditional holiday spices including cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. But there was one new-to-me ingredient: cardamom.

I've never used cardamom before and I was curious about it. It comes from the seed of a tropical plant in the ginger family. (See photos of the plant and pods here.) Harvesting this spice is very labor-intensive and that's why it is the world's third most expensive spice (after saffron and vanilla). It is a popular ingredient in Scandinavian, Indian, and Middle Eastern cooking. Its flavor, to me, tastes peppery and fruity, almost citrusy. Cardamom seeds can be used as a breath freshener or "to detoxify caffeine in people taking excessive amounts of coffee."

So, let's get to baking some of these cookies to drink with our coffee, shall we?

I used this recipe from Epicurious and modified it slightly by reducing the overall amount of sugar and replacing some of the white sugar with brown. My adapted version of the recipe is as follows.

Pfeffernusse Cookies

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground cardamom
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup finely chopped almonds
1/2 cup finely chopped candied orange peel
2 tsp. lemon zest
6 Tbsp. dark molasses
6 Tbsp. brandy
Powdered sugar for dusting

Mix the first 8 ingredients and set aside. In a separate bowl, beat the white and brown sugars into the butter. Add the egg yolks and mix. Add the almonds, orange peel, lemon zest and mix some more. Stir one third of the flour mixture into the butter mixture. Add the molasses and brandy. Then add the the rest of the flour mixture. When fully blended, cover the dough and store it in the refrigerator overnight. The next day... heat the oven to 350 degrees. Take spoonfuls of dough and roll them into small balls. Place them on a Silpat mat or a greased cookie sheet and bake for about 12 - 14 minutes. After they've cooled for a little while, roll the cookies in powdered sugar.

These are great cookies to make well in advance of Christmas. We have noticed that they get better with age. As the days pass, all the spices and citrus flavors continue to meld together wonderfully.

Why did I choose to make Pfeffernusse? These were not among the types of cookie we made when I was growing up, but my dad always loves the packaged Pfeffernusse cookies from Germany, so they are a tribute to him. And it just so happens that the man I married loves Pfeffernusse, too! So I wanted to find a good Pfeffernusse recipe that I could add to my arsenal of traditional holiday favorites. This one fits the bill perfectly.

I made these cookies on Sunday and they are so good ("ridiculously good," as my husband puts it), that we have already eaten half the batch! While this speaks well for the recipe, it doesn't bode well for my effort to build up a big stash of cookies for the days closer to Christmas. I guess I will follow mom's example and start with a double batch next time!

Merry Christmas to all and... Enjoy your favorite festive foods!


Blogger Colleen Vanderlinden said...

These sound absolutely delicious! I'm a cookie-baking nut around the holidays, too, so I'm getting ready to do some baking, trying to narrow down what exactly I'm going to make this year. Now I have another recipe to choose from :-)

Happy Baking!

8:37 AM  
Blogger Anna (Morsels and Musings) said...

these look so sweet. i love the idea of cookies at christmas too. one year, during my poor university days, i decided to bake my aunts and uncles christmas parcels of truffles and cookies instead of buying presents. everyone seemed very happy with the results . . . although they could have been being polite :)

12:43 AM  
Blogger Annie in Austin said...

Our family's Pfeffernusse recipe is an heirloom from my grandmother, used for many decades. It has some similarity to yours, but mine calls for lard as well as butter, and I don't do lard. The only spices are cinnamon, cloves, allspice, black pepper and ground Anise. The anise was always considered the essential scent and flavor of this cookie, and is more likely to be found as extract than ground today.

Yours sounds pretty good, too - I already have the Cardamon on hand. I've never heard of dried fruit in a Pfeffernusse cookie, before - maybe the ingredients vary according to what area of Germany was home to the original baker.

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

12:29 PM  
Blogger Brilynn said...

I've been looking for a cookie recipe that "ages well" to send in the mail, I'm going to give these a try, thanks!

9:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The pfeffernusse cookies I remember having had candied citrus in them too and I lost the recipe I once had so I was glad to find your post.
Thank you

12:49 AM  
Blogger lovely*retro*house said...

Hello...I tried the Trader Joe's version of this cookie last night and fell in love! I am very excited to try this recipe.

I find that ground cardamom is quite expensive in the stores (around $9 for something like what you have pictured in your recipe). If you ever have a chance, try picking up ground cardamom at an Indian foods' store (some large Japanese/Asian stores may also carry)...you will save over half the price. OR you can do what I do, I buy the cardamom PODS at the Indian store...$3-$4...and crack them open and grind up the black seeds as I need them in recipes. This way the taste is MUCH fresher :-) it only takes a few seconds or a couple minutes depending on how fine you want your cardamom powder. I like to add this so everything...bread, rice pudding, black tea...yum

Anyway, thanks for posting this recipe! I am looking forward to having these cookies on Christmas :-)

9:58 AM  

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